The writer consoles himself by saying, ‘by writing this or that, you will finally get to live your life’ – not realising that these tasks are what your life becomes. Then again, I was nearly killed during the writing of this article. The random hand of chance is always near. However true or false it may actually be, every pop culture writer feels that they are vividly connected to cultural events of their time – whether in lockstep with or at a remove from every twist and turn of the zeitgeist, deciding whether to investigate any of this tumult is critical. The choice to delve deep and pull out a handpicked candidate is often never the writers to make; the ever-raging continuum demands content and you are there to deliver what you are given, to a set word count and impending deadline.
In the twenty-one years that I’ve been writing about popular culture, there have been few moments of reflection about the process I was involved in. The sheer volume of work that I had done, and how much time, effort and energy it had taken to assemble it, has mitigated against it. However, the most recent of these happened last year, as I shopped in a regular record shop haunt. I came across a new album by one of my favourite bands: Stillicide by Helms Alee, a relatively obscure American metal band. There are many like them but this one is mine. One band illuminated the whole. What shook me to my core was the realisation that I had not been given the chance to review the album ahead of time. This realisation, so unusual and outside of my writing routine, illuminated everything that had gone before it. Like Howard W. Campbell Jr. in Mother Night, I was rooted to the spot, forced finally to confront just how far I had come.
Helms Alee are my portal back into that world. A Seattle-based band comprising of Ben Verellen (guitar/ vocals), Dana James (bass/vocals) and Hoz Matheson-Margullis (drums/vocals), their gargantuan power trio assault is one of the great secrets of this century’s underground music scene. In taking a rare backward glance, I discover that things are not what they seem.
Since I have a promo copy of their debut album, Night Terror, I presumed that I had reviewed it for the publication I worked for: not so. I had to wait until their second (staggering) album, Weatherhead, for a chance to sink my teeth into them. Here is a taste of what I wrote about it:
“The album is a brave construct of glistening melodies, eerily beautiful harmonies and pulverising musicianship, each component aligning to spectacular effect. Pretty as Pie is just one exultant moment among many, a pounding of joyful submission.”
Confronting my words from that time is disconcerting. Having not looked at them since I sent them to my editor, they are disembodied, wholly outside of myself – but it is heartening to have your instincts confirmed, as Weatherhead is an example of an album transformed from mere writing assignment into a beloved record. Another venture into the wormhole opened up by this process is revisiting the origin of these releases.
Both albums were released on the exceptional Los Angeles-based Hydra Head label, run by Aaron Turner of the legendary metal group ISIS. Now all but defunct, Hydra Head released some of the greatest and most challenging albums of that era, not least of which was Shake Harder Boy by Ben Verellen’s previous group Harkonen, an incredible battering ram of an album that is beloved by those who have heard it. I wrote two separate reviews of their album Sleepwalking Sailors (2014).
Here is an extract from one of them:
“The vocal interplay from James, Verellen and Hozoji Matheson-Margullis brings another refreshing and infectious component to each song. The soaring choruses of Heavy Worm Burden and Crystal Gale are perfect hook-laden pop gems, their melodies gleefully peeking out from within blast furnace power chords and brutal in-the-pocket drumming. The band’s skills are displayed at a career apex here, bristling with an easefulness that some bands work their entire lives for to never achieve.”
What’s clear to me now is not the music so much as the environment in which I first heard and wrote about these albums. The dead straight red terraces of a northern city, blasted out windows of cars, green glass gathered underfoot as I passed by yet another window filled with empties: someone’s alcoholic show of force. Helms Alee’s pounding, see-saw riffs have escaped their moorings. They have inveigled themselves into these post-industrial vistas, and my ongoing ghost career as a writer, swarming all over their origins and elevating the worst of worlds to an exalted space. This is merely one example of how music moves beyond itself, beyond an immediate task that is set for you, traversing time to become a critical component of your life without you ever being aware of it. If I were to choose another band, another review, another pathway would open, revealing ever more about that long lost yet viscerally near environment. So close in time but so far away in recollection. Now to make that journey, over and over again.